The “ephemeral memorials” of November 13, another account of the attacks

Photos, messages, drawings, flowers and candles … The day after November 13, “ephemeral memorials” formed near the scene of the attacks. For the first time in France, these testimonies were collected and used to tell the story “from below”, explains sociologist Gérôme Truc.

What drives some relatives of the victims, residents or tourists to drop off objects after an attack? What do their messages say? Is society really “united” in mourning? What to do with these improvised altars?

In a collective work entitled “The memorials of November 13”, published at the end of October, sociologists, historians, archivists but also garbage collectors recount in texts and images the crazy adventure of collecting and conserving these materials. And what they say about French society at the start of the 21st century and the way in which it endures violence.

“These memorials appear every time a death shocks us, they are what we call the ‘bad deaths’: road accidents, mass attacks or not, famous deaths. It has become a classic way of living. collective mourning ”, analyzes Gérôme Truc, who co-edited this book with sociologist Sarah Gensburger.

– A phenomenon born in the 90s –

The phenomenon has been “observed since the 1990s”, for example during the Oklahoma City attack in the United States, or after the death of Lady Di, notes the CNRS researcher.

“In all likelihood, there must have been things after the attacks of Saint-Michel and Port-Royal, in 1995 and 1996 in Paris, but it did not arouse the attention of anyone and nothing was preserved” , notes Gérôme Truc, who worked on the reactions to the attacks of September 11 (2001), Madrid (2004) and London (2005).

After the January 2015 terrorist attacks, the Harvard Library is appealing to collect vestiges and photos of the “Je suis Charlie” movement, and in particular the memorials that appeared on Place de la République and rue Nicolas Appert, in front of Charlie Hebdo’s premises. But nothing from the city of Paris.

So, the day after November 13, Gérôme Truc wrote to the town hall to say the importance of not once again missing out on collecting this material.

“A few days later, I met the new director of the Paris Archives, Guillaume Nahon, and a protocol was put in place with the maintenance services,” he recounts.

In the book, Guillaume Nahon tells how archivists and garbage collectors intervened “gradually”, cleaning and collecting little by little, “so as not to shock”. They “served a little as nurses at the memorials and their audiences”, “dressings on wounded territories”, he writes.

– Soon a memorial museum? –

In total, some 7,700 documents and 5,000 photographs were archived, an “extraordinary and unprecedented” job.

“In France, we have a tradition of primarily administrative archives. November 13 marks a turning point with the appearance of citizen archives,” says Gérôme Truc. This is very important because in a few years or a few centuries, when historians will want to tell about these events, they will not only have the point of view from + up + “.

So what do these testimonies from “below” say? “Seen from afar, we can have the impression of empty and consensual formulas. In fact, by studying them closely, we see that these memorials are political and civic spaces, which aim to pay homage but also to challenge”.

From the hastily written message on a subway ticket or a banknote to “open letters to terrorists” through hateful diatribes (rare to have been collected because often “censored” by passers-by), “they show the plurality of social relations in the attacks “.

Often imbued with “secularized Christian morality”, these testimonies, among which very many children’s drawings, primarily claim “freedom, love and peace”.

They also say the need not to forget the victims and to remember their names.

A process of memory which could be completed by the “memorial museum of societies facing terrorism” promised by Emmanuel Macron.

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